The New Top Fed for Higher Ed

Sara Martinez Tucker, U.S. under secretary for education, discusses her new job, the Spellings commission and affirmative action.
January 3, 2007




It's a few days before Christmas, and Sara Martinez Tucker has been running nonstop in the few days since the U.S. Senate confirmed her as the new U.S. under secretary for education. Emerging from back-to-back-to-back meetings, she arrives a few minutes late for an early-afternoon interview with a reporter, but when an aide suggests that she take a few minutes to catch her break, and perhaps grab a bite, Tucker demurs. "If I stop running, I'll fall down," she says.

If Tucker, whose new job makes her the nation's top federal higher education official, is acting like someone in a hurry, that's because she is. Nominated by President Bush in August but not confirmed by the U.S. Senate until December, Tucker was forced to cool her heels, for months acting only behind the scenes, in a kind of no-man's land. Now that she is official, Tucker knows that the window for achieving her most significant priority -- carrying out the recommendations of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, of which she was a member -- is not open very wide. 

She is, after all, joining an administration (1) for its final two years, (2) after the president's party has lost control of Congress, and (3) when its top education policy goal is inarguably renewal of the No Child Left Behind law, and during the interview, Tucker, on multiple occasions, utters phrases along the lines of, "We don't have much time." But she also expresses confidence -- the confidence of the first Latino woman to reach AT&T's upper ranks, perhaps, or of someone named in 2005 to Time magazine's list of 25 most influential Hispanics -- that she will be able to accomplish much of her agenda in the short time she has.

What that agenda holds for higher education -- for students and would-be students, for colleges and their employees -- is uncertain, particularly at a time when some higher education officials feel that the department, in beginning to carry out the Spellings commission's agenda, has taken an overly aggressive tack. That is among the topics that Tucker discussed in the interview last month with Inside Higher Ed. ( Listen to the full conversation on the latest Inside Higher Ed podcast .) She listed as her top priorities making the federal student aid system more efficient and pouring any funds produced through that effort back to students; aligning high school and college curriculums to improve access to higher education, particularly for low-income and minority students; and encouraging foundations and companies to invest more, particularly in scholarships.

And she said she plans to work closely and collaboratively with college officials in carrying out those plans -- as long as they're on board with the idea that change is necessary. "Our standards are, we want to improve access, we want to improve affordability, and we want to improve accountability," she said. "If you agree with us on those things, it's going to be collaborative. If you don't agree on these things, then we're going to have to have some tough conversations."

Highlights of the interview follow:

Q. What in your background has prepared you for this position?

A. The way I heard the question was what makes you think you're qualified for the job? [Laughs] Candidly, I don't know what the right qualifications are. One of the things, when the secretary and I first started talking about education, when she was in the [White House] West Wing and I was quarterly popping by to see her over at the West Wing and we talked about education, I said, the thing that's amazing to me is just how much is changing. What's missing for me is the connectivity that we talked about in the commission report. When she formed the commission, what I said to her was, this is going to be a terrific thing for me. I know what higher ed meant to me, I had gotten a picture of higher ed now that I've been doing the work that I've been doing for the last nine years, and because of the work that I was doing, and because the Hispanicization of America becoming so big, a lot of colleges asked me to sit on their boards. And then there I was, the chair of the Board of Trustees of a small private, and had to deal with accreditation. I said to the secretary, you know, I think one could say that I'm a little jaded, based on seeing higher ed through the eyes of my community for nine years in a row, or eight years before the commission started. For me, it's going to be fun, because I'm going to get to see higher ed through the lens of the business community, and higher ed through the lens of the academics.

And I was still naively thinking that those were the lenses. The thing I learned the most from the commission work is, we don't have the ability, the luxury, of looking at higher ed through those unique lenses. Certainly each of us has to be passionate about protecting -- for me it would be the constituents I represented, for the business community it would be private investment, for academics it would be academic freedom. But we can't continue to sit in these little pipes -- chimney pipes -- and expect to be effective for the students we're supposed to serve. So I don't know that there's any background that would make you uniquely qualified for this job. I would hope that what I would bring to this would be an ability to say, there's a stake in it for everybody, and to the extent that we can facilitate the right conversation that has to happen so that the right decision is made and we can get the investment required, that's what I think. I don't know that an academic or somebody from corporate America -- I don't know what experiences would prepare you for this, given the situation in higher education today.

Q. But unpack that a little bit, if you would. Personally, educationally, and professionally, how did those experiences frame your view of higher education?

A. Bottom line, if you were to ask me why I bring any energy or any passion or any commitment to this report, I had an undergrad degree, and my undergrad degree was from the University  of Texas at Austin, that alone did not give me the life I needed. It took a graduate degree to get me out of South Texas, to give me the life I needed. And I grew up with terrific parents, who always put education first, who sometimes went without a lot for themselves so that their children could get the best education possible, kindergarten to 8th grade, and all of those things together couldn't have gotten me anywhere. It was that college education. and for less than a third of Americans to have a college degree, to me, it's "How do you create your destiny?" Too many Americans have their heritage as the only thing they can look forward to. So personal commitment -- I would love for every child in the United States of America to be able to create their own destiny. And I really believe the fundamental thing you have to have to be able to create your own destiny is higher education.

And so, why am I here? I want to make sure all Americans have access to higher ed. And whether we have to fix it on the access side, the affordability side, or, prove the worth of the investment on the accountability side, I would hope that my own experiences as a first-generation low income kid approaching higher ed would inform me, but I hope it wouldn't dictate the way I approach this job, because it's changed so much from when I did this. I would hope that my time as a newspaper reporter would help me be compelling in my communications to get people to want to work together. I would hope my 16 years at AT&T taught me how to build good return on investment models, helped me build business cases to convince people to make investments, and more importantly, taught me how to work with various stakeholders. And I would hope that the nine years I had at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund would always, always keep me grounded in, What does the community need for this organization to do?

Q. What were the overall impressions left for you of higher education out of your work on the secretary's commission?

A. At the beginning I was amazed at how quickly we coalesced around what the key issues were.... Candidly, I will tell you I was really disappointed at how we fell apart when solution development started coming. Maybe sitting on corporate boards,  maybe watching board members of my own not-for-profit, the people I ended up respecting the most were the ones that learned to take off their hat at the door and walk in to solve the organization's issues, and I was just amazed at how quickly some people retreated back to protecting their piece of it. And maybe that's natural when you're in solution development, but we can't afford that. And I will tell you that in the nine weeks I've been percolating here in Washington, D.C., before I could be effective, every meeting I've had with the multitude of people I've been meeting with behind the scenes, in my mind what I've been doing is saying, Can they help or will they hurt? We don't have a whole lot of time. And they're not going to know whether I think that they're helpers or hurters, I'm just going to manage those relationships differently. We don't have the luxury of time to get around the issues that have to be solved around higher ed. And my lasting impression from the commission is probably the graciousness of most people in coming around and saying, we have to stand up as one to support the recommendations here. The devil's in the details, and I agree that how we implement is going to matter a lot. But the fact that we quickly coalesced, broke apart, but then quickly came together to say, we have a responsibility that's bigger than each of us, is kind of the spirit I'm going to take with me the next couple years.

Q. Was it only higher education, or parts of higher education, that you felt walked away? Was higher education as an industry too defensive?

A. I don't know that I'd say that. When I was in corporate, and the whole quality initiative came on, I noticed that people at the beginning when we were collecting data on what was broken, people felt this intense need to justify why it was the way it was. What I would say to them was, it took the Bell system 117 years to get to this point. There are no quick fixes. The only way we're going to be able to fix is if we're able to be open about what's possible. I'm not saying it was a defensiveness. If we're aiming to protect the status quo, I think we get in the way of reform. You could look at the business sector, the private sector, and say, there's some squeamishness there. I told my team, look at how many of these corporations only fund K-12 initiatives. How many of them are having their own companies putting stuff to mind, or are out there creating workarounds? So it isn't just higher ed. I think there's a tendency to want to protect the status quo around what you do, or put the fault elsewhere. We didn't get to as broken as we are today -- and I'm going to just say that, I think there's a lot we do well -- but to the fact we're almost at 2007 and we still don't have high school graduation standards aligned with college entrance requirements, to the fact that we still don't have federal student aid aligned with access goals, vs. programs that have been percolating for a long time, we're a long way from being fixed. And to the extent that we don't acknowledge that we have a problem, and are open about where work needs to happen, we get in the way of progress. So defensiveness isn't what I would use; what I would use is kind of a, 'I didn't create the problem; the problem is elsewhere.' That's what we've got to get out of our conversations.

Q. Exactly how would you define your new job, either formally or informally?

A. My team laughs when I say this, and so does the secretary. I wish we could operate in a vacuum.... We know what has to get done. If people just left us alone, we'd be able to get a lot of stuff done. I think my work is in three buckets right now. Bucket one, which is the one that I'm here for, is the implementation of all 30 recommendations [of the Spellings commission]. Do I have any personal favorites? Absolutely. I told the secretary, I'm here to do these two things. And she said, and this is the one that matters to me. So there are three things that are going to be foremost for us. We also have [the Higher Education Act] coming up. And you have different scenarios percolating around in Washington, D.C., about how quickly it's going to come up. We have to have our act together around the reauthorization of HEA. And then the last bucket, of course, is the [Democrats'] 100-hour agenda. And so, what I've got my team doing is, we framed out all 30 commission recommendations, and said, who's the primary stakeholder for getting this stuff done. So we know that. We did a second analysis to say, all right, what creates the most transformation along one axis and impacts the most students at the other axis. So now I have a 12-month agenda for which of the 30 I want to tackle first, and who owns them, and how do I convene them so that we get work done. Now I have to put that in the context of HEA and the 100-hour agenda. And sadly, for me, the 100-hour agenda, all three items fit in Title IV.... It's college financing, it doesn't deal with acces to the extent that it needs to, and it doesn't deal with accountability to the extent it needs to. So I'm sitting back here thinking, if we really want to align affordability along access goals, and we've got a college financing system up for consideration, why wouldn't we step back and say, what do we want as access goals for Americans and then build a financing piece of it to support it? So that's the way I'm bucketizing my work....

Q. One practical question: Is your work at the department entirely in higher education?

A. Completely higher education. All things adult, is what the secretary likes to say. The deputy secretary has K through 12, so I have all the operations and policy for anything after.

Q. You opened the door: Which are the recommendations that matter the most to you?

A. Can I tell If I were queen for the day, I'd want to fix federal student aid. It's not just Pell, it's not just need-based aid. At AT&T, when they gave me the consumer operations job, I had all of AT&T's call centers. I was proud of all 22 work centers, and the way they serviced the 80 million resident customers, but it occurred to me that if I had 22 different centers, I was probably staffing to peaks and valleys for 22 different queues, and it was probably going to cost the company more to operate them. So I was thinking, if we have 17 federal student aid programs, and 14 out of [the Office of Federal Student Aid], and we don't let you apply until midnight on January 1, with the experience I have, why wouldn't I come in and say, let's step back, what if we were to do zero-based budgeting? What if we take away no benefits to students, and yet we organize so that it's more efficient and more effective, what do we do with the savings from doing that? So the thing that I would love to do, and the thing that's got me real excited, and a lot of it we can do within our own shop here, the No. 1 priority for me is to fix federal student aid so that students have easier access to information they need about what they're eligible for, so they can apply more  easily, so they can get an answer from us much more easily than they do now, and so we can squeeze out as much cost in administering and put more benefits to American students. That's my No. 1 priority.

Q. When people who deal with student aid and within higher education hear talk of simplication or streamlining or whatever verb or noun you choose to use to describe what might be done to the student aid programs, they tend to believe that money's going to disappear.

A. That's why you very carefully heard me say, when I first got here I was ignorant and I was thinking people knew what streamlining meant, and simplification, that it was the corporate jargon. What I was saying was not what people were hearing. What they were hearing was, get rid of programs. That's why I'm very careful to say now, streamline federal student aid, reengineer federal student aid, simplify -- whatever you want to say. Not take away any benefits to students -- but reduce the cost of administering the programs. To the extent out there that there are programs out there with benefits to students, that's not what I'm proposing goes away. What I'm proposing goes away is the complexity of federal student aid.

Q. Do you see ways that can be done? What's a rough outline of how you go about that?

A. I think the most important thing -- and it hasn't happened yet, but one of the things I'm eager to tackle -- the first thing you have to start with is, what are the access goals for this country? Who do you want to become lifelong learners, who do you want getting higher ed, whether it's the community college or whatever, and then you have to look at who is getting priced out. And then once you understand who is being priced out, then you have to understand what programs can support them, without having that complementary, maybe, increase in the cost of higher ed. So for me it's what are the access goals for this country, who's being priced out, what aid do they need, and then how do we package that aid so it doesn't have unintended consequences? That's the logic I want to take folks through, in being open.

Q. Who do you convene?

A. We have a meeting coming up where we're going to decide just that. I'm bringing together folks from across the department, good thinkers, to just sit back and say, how do we within the confines of government's contracting processes, etc., how do we create a process for getting at solving that, and who do we need in the room to be able to do that. One of the things that concerns me is that if you start fixing things in isolation, you don't know what consequence or impact it's going to have on other things around it. I know we don't have lots of time to have that holistic view, so I'm feeling that pressure of getting it done quickly.

Q. What are the other early initiatives you can talk about?

A. I mentioned that little exercise we did ... most power for transforming, then most students impacted. Because the commission's members don't have anybody to really rally them, we've scheduled a call with the commissioners. I want to review the analysis we did around selecting those high-impact programs, getting their agreement that those are the right ones for us to start with, and then making those the subject of the summit the secretary's been talking about in March, and then designing around how we get those things done. Borrowing from Dave Letterman, once we get commissioners' agreement that this staff has picked out the top bullets, and making those the subject of the agenda for the summit, I'd love to be able to convene work groups to say what are the top 10 things that need to happen in each of those areas for implementation, and then hopefully issue a report card for ourselves in September, a year after the report, to say, What progress are we making? And then making sure we've got ownership for those things, whether it's within higher ed or here in the Department of Education or elsewhere, so that we can have momentum happening on those 10 things that have to happen to get those commission recommendations implemented.

Q. You've talked at several points about lack of time.... Coming into an administration in the second half of its second term -- obviously you made the decision before the president's party lost power in Congress -- are you optimistic that you have enough time to make a difference?

A. Absolutely. I'm interviewing people for key jobs right now, and they're asking me the very same question. If we don't give it our best effort, how will we know? I know we have a couple things going for us. No. 1, I don't know that anybody would have predicted that right after the election, you'd have so many people talking about higher education. Whether it was the president the day after saying energy and education were going to be his focus, the Democrats coming up with their 100-hour plan, higher ed is out there. So I think people are curious. That's the No. 1 opportunity. No. 2, I think when you have this many people outside of government interested, you can get things done. And No. 3, even as we have done our own analysis of those 30 recommendations, with enough attention I think you can get the right players in the room and you can make things happen. I wouldn't be commuting to San Francisco if I didn't believe in these two years we can get a lot done.

Q. Is Huge IPEDS still on the table? Unit records?

A. I don't know the answer.... I know what the secretary has said, and I completely believe it. We've spent some time talking to the folks at [Health and Human Services], who do the national database on health. We've spent a lot of time on the Hill, talking to the people who are concerned about privacy. I don't think we have the answer to what the right thing is. I have a personal opinion on what the right answer is, but I don't know if it's right. I think there are a number of states that have done tremendous things out there, and maybe the role of the federal government is just to ensure that there are standards so that state databases can talk to each other. Maybe the role of the federal government is to build something. I don't know the answer until I'm able to dig deeper a little bit, but I know we've got great work going on in some states and I'd hate for us to reinvent the wheel here.

Q. Which parts of the commission's agenda would you say you're most and least optimistic about?

A. I'm hoping with the good work around state alignment with colleges, I think that's big, I think that's huge. That's my No. 2 [priority], by the way. The only reason it came out to No. 2, given that I've been working in student access, is that I can do something about federal student aid. For the aligning of states ... when I leave here, I hope all 50 states have high school graduation standards aligned with the world of work and the world of college. I'm optimistic that's an area where everyone's in agreement, something's gotta get done, and we only hurt our kids if we don't have that work out. So I am optimistic about that. I am optimistic about federal student aid. I was a little controversial with both sides in my confirmation, and as I make the rounds on the Hill, I think there's a lot of interest in financing higher ed on the Hill, I know from the administration's standpoint as well, I think we can get a lot done in federal student aid. I've tasked [the Office of] Federal Student Aid to look at things we can get done, now -- not regulatory, not statutory, just consumer-oriented.

I'm hopeful that we can do -- and I think this is the one that's going to be harder -- but that's something we have to do something in, and that's around adult literacy. ... [Several corporate leaders have said to me,] Thank God you have [the Office of Vocational and Adult Education under your authority]. And I said why? They said, "A high school diploma doesn't qualify you for a job on the factory floor anymore. You don't know all the computer science that's required, and to the extent we're doing all of that training, we need a partner.' So I think we need to develop a really strong platform, and then planks, for adult literacy.

Just because of the background that I've had, I'd be remiss if I didn't create something a strong role for the private sector. Whether it's the foundations or the corporations and the money they invest, getting them to do their part. You may remember during the commission proceedings, I think government should do a lot around ensuring standards for kids for learning, but to the extent there are social obstacles, to the extent there are financial obstacles, I think the private sector plays a huge role. And I'm hoping that my experience in corporate and in the work I've been doing over the past nine years in raising money from the private sector, that this is a unique opportunity for us to sit back and talk about, how do we make need-based aid a priority for the private sector? I don't know if you know this, but most private foundations have in their little rules that they don't fund scholarships. So making need-based aid more of a private sector priority, and getting them to understand that they're the winners in this. To the extent we get more Americans graduating with a college diploma, you end up with more consumers with discretionary spending, and a bigger tax base. So since they win, they should be investing a lot.

Q. Affirmative action is now under attack in several states [in the referendum campaigns promoted by Ward Connerly]. What is your position on affirmative action? Are you concerned about the disappearance of it in some states? You've survived it, or at least lived through it, in Texas and California.

A. I've lived through it. One of the things I can tell you really surprised me, when I moved from corporate to running a national nonprofit that's focused on the Latino community, my experiences were not the experiences of today's Latino students. The second thing I had to learn is that there's no one size fits all. When I spent time in Georgia or in the Carolinas with the first-generation Hispanics, versus in California or Texas, where you have six or seven generation Hispanics, it's like the world starts over for you. So to the extent that we have a national answer for affirmative action, we may be missing the nuance of what's happening in local communities. When we don't have level playing fields, though, I think we have got to fix for that. My father-in-law in Wichita, Kan., never understood why I went from an executive at AT&T to running a nonprofit. He was a blue collar, union worker. I said, Ralph, you've worked real hard for your retirement, right? He said Yes. I said, how has Kansas changed in the time that you started working? How many Hispanics do you see here? Do you want your retirement funded by high school dropouts, or college graduates? And to the extent that it used to be 20 active workers for every 1 retiree, we're about to cross the threshold for 2 to 1. More Americans need college-educated kids, and if you look at the demographics of this country, to the extent that you don't have a level playing field, we've got to create solutions to get more children of color, more adults of color, plugged back into education.

I have my preferences. I've certainly lived through Texas, I certainly lived through California, I have preferences on which ones are working better. The last thing any community that's disadvantaged needs is to have to break the law to get ahead. One of the sentences I heard recently that really tickled me ... to the extent that states and schools are encouraged to increase the diversity on their campuses while not breaking the law, I think it's possible. I'm really proud of my home state. I haven't lived in Texas since 1980, but what Texas did after [then Attorney General] Dan Morales's interpretation [of the Hopwood v. Texas affirmative action decision in 1995] I think was just genius. For a flagship like [the University of Texas at Austin] to sit back and say, 'We are the University of Texas. We should be serving all high schools. What high schools aren't sending kids to us? What can we do with those schools? It wasn't race or ethnic-specific, but it was very smart. And I think there are good ways of getting more diverse populations on college campuses that won't call for federal mandating of what affirmative action ought to look like.

Q. Do you support affirmative action as a tool?

A. See, but affirmative action can mean -- what do you mean by affirmative action? Is it a quota program?

Q. No, it's consideration of race in admissions as a factor. The Michigan standard, the Bakke standard.

A. I think it would be Sandra Day O'Connor's language. To the extent that we don't have [college] populations reflective of the citizenry, then you've got to do something about it.... I kind of like the way Texas did it, which is how do we serve the state better. California has its 4 percent law.

Q. What I'm driving at is -- Connerly's approach would take ... away [the ability to consider race as a factor in admissions].

A. I'm nowhere near Connerly's. If we stay with Connerly, it's survival of the fittest, and survival of the fittest isn't going to get us to where we need.... The Connerly approach would have us go from 30 percent [minority enrollments in college] to probably 15 percent. We as a country can't afford that. ...

Q. A lot of people were pleased to hear Secretary Spellings say at a recent forum on accreditation that "we're not going to do this to you, we're going to do this with you."...  What would you say to those in higher education who are concerned that the department, in some of its recent actions carrying out the department's recommendations, is going to run roughshod?

A. No. 1, I don't think that's our style, either the secretary's or myself. You were at the accreditation forum. You probably heard one of the opening panelist's say, "We have to get in front of this train." ...

To the extent that higher ed believes that outcomes matter, and to the extent that higher ed believes that accreditation ought to measure outcomes, not just inputs, nobody's going to run roughshod over anybody. To the extent, though, that higher ed says, "No, it's all about inputs, it's all about process," I think we may have some tough conversations. But to the extent that people have the sentiment that people had in that room, it really is about working together and figuring out what is right. People said, "We're past that, let's get to understanding what it's going to look like."

I would hate to think that people read whatever happened at [ a recent meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity] to be impacting that ... I don't see the two related myself. Now it may be that we have a scared higher ed community out there that thinks every time we act tough, that that means we're going to run roughshod. That wasn't the intent. The intent is to say, "We have standards. Our standards are, we want to improve access, we want to improve affordability, and we want to improve accountability. If you agree with us on those things, it's going to be collaborative. If you don't agree on these things, then we're going to have to have some tough conversations."

I told one of my new colleagues from one of the associations. Is this a conversation you and I can have in the office, or are we going to need a bottle of wine to have this conversation? We're going to have to get past them. There are going to be a lot of tough conversations.

But ... we're not looking to place blame on anybody. We didn't get to where we are today by someone's compulsion -- we got here because we evolved to this point. To the extent that we're going to want to protect where we are, we may not have an easy conversation. To the extent that we agree that we've got to fix it, we're going to be fine." 


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